An American in Greece: Travel to Europe is no easy feat this summer

(CNN) — What awaits American visitors to Europe this summer is a byzantine and constantly-changing array of Covid-related restrictions and registration requirements. It’s sort of like shifting mask mandates in the US, just with lots of paperwork and foreign languages thrown in. This is what I discovered on my Kafkaesque odyssey to Greece in June as an eager but under-prepared American.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. But first, here are all the mistakes my husband and I made on our six-day trip to Europe (about all we could swing with two toddlers at home), so that you don’t make the same ones.

When we arrived at a mostly empty Newark airport on a Sunday night, the Lufthansa check-in agent told us we would not, even as fully vaccinated travelers, be allowed out of the airport into Germany if we missed our connecting flight from Munich to Crete. It turned out, though, that there was also a question of whether we would be let into Greece.

Earlier in the week, when my husband had asked me if there were any paperwork requirements for entry into Greece, I said no. But in my hasty trip planning, I had neglected to read two emails carefully enough to know that everyone entering Greece needs a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) and the QR code issued upon its completion.

Tourists are expected to return this summer in greater numbers to Greece, visiting the old town in Mykonos and other popular spots.

Tourists are expected to return this summer in greater numbers to Greece, visiting the old town in Mykonos and other popular spots.

Loulou D’Aki/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The form had to be submitted by 11:59 p.m. local time the day before we were scheduled to arrive in Greece, which meant we had to select the following day, Tuesday, as our earliest possible arrival date even though we had tickets to arrive in Heraklion on Monday.

With that cloud of uncertainty hanging over us, we boarded our Lufthansa flight — an altogether very pleasant and almost pre-pandemic-like experience, save for the masks and a little less hands-on service — to Munich and crossed our fingers that it would all work out.

This is probably a good place to mention that Covid travel, particularly of the international variety, is not for the faint of heart. No matter how much research you’ve done, not everything will be effortless and smooth. This is the new normal of crossing borders in our not yet post-pandemic world.

We visited after Greece opened up to Americans but before the United States was added on June 18 to the European Union’s list of approved countries, opening up more options for both vaccinated and unvaccinated US travelers. However, each country has the final say on its own rules and restrictions, so going anywhere in Europe still requires a lot of detailed research. And growing concern about the Delta variant is prompting new restrictions in some countries.

Mixed messaging as the travel industry irons out the rules

When we arrived in Munich, the possibility of not being let into Greece became quite real. A help line customer service agent in Greece told me that we wouldn’t be allowed in because we didn’t have a QR code for that day. Another plot twist: Bavaria, the region of Germany where Munich is located, requires KN-95 masks, which we didn’t own.

That was probably the low point: finding out we had to purchase less comfortable masks after a red eye while not knowing if we’d be able to leave the airport until the next day. We spent several nail-biting hours working the phones and stressing over whether we would reach the azure waters that lured us.

The island of Crete is full of spectacular Mediterranean scenes, including the secluded Seitan Limania Beach.

The island of Crete is full of spectacular Mediterranean scenes, including the secluded Seitan Limania Beach.

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

After the blessed gate agent at TUI had some back-and-forth with employees on the ground in Crete, they assured us we would be let in. (We also subsequently learned that the consequences of arriving sans QR code are not being sent back but submitting to a Covid test at the airport.)

So we made it to Greece. At the end of a 20-hour travel day, we arrived at Blue Palace, located in a posh area of the Elounda district of Crete, and run by the second generation of the Sbokou family, who were pioneers in building Crete’s hospitality industry.

The hotel, and accompanying hospitality, made the high-drama journey a distant memory. We made it just in time for magic hour — that time of day when the sun sets over the Aegean and you drink a perfectly tart glass of rose and eat a Greek salad with tomatoes that are their own kind of life force.

Crete, where the economy is predominately reliant on the tourism industry, is checking all the boxes to make visitors feel safe.

“The Covid regulations here are strict,” said Agapi Sbokou, CEO of Phaea Resorts, which owns five hotels in Crete, including Blue Palace. There is so much that happens behind the scenes, Sbokou told me over lunch at Blue Palace. “For instance, glass has to be washed at a certain temperature,” she said.

Masks are mandatory for employees at all times, even outside, and the compliance was uniform and unstinting. If the resort staff was disgruntled about having to wear a face covering in temperatures that frequently drifted above 90 degrees, they didn’t show it.

Stavros Beach in Crete is preparing to welcome more international visitors this summer.

Stavros Beach in Crete is preparing to welcome more international visitors this summer.

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

High levels of Covid compliance

The big picture in Greece is that even if there were some glitches getting in, once you’re on the ground the warm and welcoming spirit is, perhaps, stronger than ever. The country, heavily reliant on foreign visitors, seems really happy to see people, particularly Americans.

Remember, Greece was one of the first European countries to open up to American tourists and there is a real sense that the Greeks are committed to making this season feel as “normal” as possible while observing Covid protocols.

And travel is picking up, albeit slowly. Sbokou said the hotel was at 50% occupancy. On our packed flight to Mykonos a few days later, it seemed to be at least a quarter American.

But that doesn’t mean getting around Greece is always easy. Our planned four-hour ferry trip from Crete to Mykonos was abruptly canceled less than 24 hours before our voyage due to a transit workers strike. In a strange way, it was reassuring to find out that things can go sideways for reasons other than the global pandemic. We ended up on two SkyExpress flights — motto: “Greece is Bliss.” And yes, even at this juncture of our journey, I nodded in agreement with their tagline.

In family-friendly Crete, Covid consciousness and compliance was in full effect: Over the six days and six flights of our trip, the trip to Mykonos from Athens was the first — and only — time I heard a flight attendant tell a passenger to pull her mask over her nose and mouth. Everyone else seemed to be fully compliant.

Luxury resort Kalesma Mykonos just opened in May.

Luxury resort Kalesma Mykonos just opened in May.

Courtesy Kalesma Mykonos

But what about on one of the Mediterranean’s most famous party islands — Mykonos — known as a bastion of hedonism? I was curious to find out if its vibe could coexist with our not-yet-Covid-free world.

The brand-new Kalesma property, claimed by its owner Aby Saltiel to be the most expensive hotel to ever be built in Greece, was buzzing. Saltiel says the hotel, where rooms start at €1,200 ($1,400) per night and are among some of the largest and most finely appointed on the island, is almost completely sold out in July and August.

Still, in early June, Kalesma’s buzzy and delicious new restaurant, Pere Ubu, was hopping. Patrons dined on braised lamb and seafood dishes while abiding by the rule of not having more than six people at a table, even outside.

Mykonos is hoping for a better tourism season this summer.

Mykonos is hoping for a better tourism season this summer.

Byron Smith/Getty Images

Ramping up for tourism’s recovery

During the first weekend in June, the island was relatively quiet. Mykonos did not feel empty, nor did it have the full summertime kinetic energy; locals told me the island was at about 40% capacity.

When I asked someone at the hotel what time the stores were open until, I was told, “Not late, only until midnight.” In the summer, Mykonos’ shopping mecca usually doesn’t close until 5 a.m. to accommodate the over 200,000 visitors that regularly filled this rocky isle during pre-pandemic times.

The beach clubs, where front row sun beds can cost €200 to rent, were still largely empty. Scorpios, the famous Mykonos night club, opened on June 12 and has a reservation-only policy this season.

But those beaches will likely look much different in July and August. Since the EU recently cleared Americans to travel to Europe, it will ostensibly make it easier to travel more freely within the bloc. And on July 1, digital Covid certificates for citizens and residents of EU member states came into play for more countries, allowing more unrestricted travel for Europeans. (However, the Delta variant is likely to complicate travel this summer).

Tourists walk on the Balos beach and lagoon in Crete in May.

Tourists walk on the Balos beach and lagoon in Crete in May.

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

As guidelines constantly shift, tourism industry professionals are still learning the ropes themselves. I encountered hospitality professionals who didn’t know the difference between an antigen and PCR test. This is not the biggest deal, unless a traveler learns last-minute that the PCR test is required, which costs twice as much and takes much longer to get results, potentially impacting travel plans.

When we were leaving Crete, there was some confusion about whether we had to attest to having taken a self-administered Covid test, which we had not. No one ever asked for that form (also completed hastily with our vaccinated status in the pre-departure rush).

All of these foibles may be minor inconveniences and make for a good story, but taken altogether, the regulatory morass could be a drag on the economic recovery.

I once again asked myself the question, as I had many times during the pandemic in situations that involve assuming some degree of Covid risk: “Is all this hassle worth it?” Each time I have come back to what has become a kind of Covid mantra of mine: “No one said navigating a global pandemic was supposed to be easy.”

This trip wasn’t either easy or convenient, but it was worth it to feel, in person, the big, beautiful world out there. I’d do it all again (and soon). Next time, though, I’ll pay more attention to the fine print.

Top photo: Phalasarna Beach on the western coast of Crete. Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images. Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York City.

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